12 Days of Meditations #1: Character vs Plot

Merry Christmas! For this year, I’d like to talk about anime, and not just specific shows that I watched this year. I’d still mention some of them, don’t worry! It’s just that enough people are doing that already, so I’d like to bring something new to the table.

This year, I started writing harder. Not hard enough as I would like to, but it’s a start, and one of the steps I took was educating myself by reading writing books.

One book I read was 20 Master Plots. I know, boring title, but I seriously learned a lot, and if you’re even remotely interested in writing or understanding fiction, you should give the book a read. It’s going to point out things that seem like stupid cliches to you and explain why writers do them, and suddenly they make sense and you wonder if you stories suck solely because you’ve been trying to avoid them all the time.

One of the things I learned from the book is that there are essentially two kinds of plots: the plot of the body (plot-driven) and the plot of the mind (character-driven). At that time, I had been watching Space Battleship Yamato 2199, and I thought, “man, people don’t make anime like this any more”. I wondered what led to that thought, and remembered the book, and realized that Yamato 2199, despite its use of modernisms to make a 40 year-old story palatable to current viewers, is clearly a plot-driven story.

In the old days, people cared more about plot than character–it was more important if Odysseus could survive this obstacle than, say, his inner thoughts and feelings, or if his ordeal has made him discover something himself. Characters acted out the plot, and the story rested on whether the series of events was interesting and plausible enough to merit turning the page. In Yamato, the crew of the titular ship needs to go to the distant planet Iskandar and receive alien technology that could reverse the Earth’s destruction. The crew is important, yes, but the story is bigger than them. They are merely instruments to the plot. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important, of course not, but they aren’t the main draw of the story. Think of the difference between a rear-wheel drive and a front-wheel drive car.

Why did I think of that thought again? Well, most anime nowadays is of the character-driven variety. A lot of anime fans use character development as a standard measure of a show’s quality–as flawed as this line of thinking is, it says a lot that anime fans nowadays expect interesting, organic characterization from what they watch. They are invested on the characters, and want to see how circumstances change them, for better or for worse. Even if the show is plot-driven, they try to judge it by using a metric that’s primarily reserved for character-driven stories.

What makes an anime either? Is the show focused on people, or (big) events? Which part is stronger, the characters or the plot? What drives the show, what keeps people hooked? This may be hard to distinguish at first, but an answer will emerge if you reflect enough.

A quick list I made, using my own thoughts. Feel free to fight me over these (though I will most probably fight back!):


  • Yamato
  • The original Mobile Suit Gundam
  • Patlabor (movies)
  • Death Note
  • Code Geass
  • Valvrave
  • Attack on Titan


  • Evangelion
  • Utena
  • Patlabor (TV)
  • Haruhi
  • Hyouka
  • Hidamari Sketch
  • Tiger & Bunny

What I noticed is that anime is leaning heavily on its characters nowadays. Why? I think it’s because character merchandise sells. If we fall in love with the characters, we’re more eager to buy something about them. A great plot is great, but it’s not really something that you could sell outside of the anime itself. What’s amusing is that Yamato 2199 is aiming for more attractive female characters, so that it could sell merch of them. Their character arcs stick out, because they weren’t there before; the original Yamato was more of a sausagefest. (It’s still a damn good show and I suggest you watch it.)

Also, if you have a character, you could place them in many different plots. If you stick different characters into the same plot, that’s called rehashing, and people will see right through it. The latter isn’t as interesting.

So what do I prefer? Again, anime fans nowadays prefer character-driven stuff. They even judge plot-driven anime by the same stick, which leads to some sad results. For me, characters stick around in my memory far more than plots, because I tend to think of fictional people as real after living with them for a long enough time. But with the knowledge that my studies have armed me, I can appreciate a good plot for what it is, and not judge it unfairly for what it’s not.

What about you?

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13 Responses to 12 Days of Meditations #1: Character vs Plot

  1. I actually wish there were more plot-driven shows. I mean I love well-made characters, it’s just these types of shows tend to have slow pacing which makes it sometimes a pain to watch (I’m looking at you Evangelion). Think I’ll read that book tho!

    • schneider says:

      Between you and me (and anyone reading this comment, oops!), I’ve noticed that anime fans would rather talk about their favorite characters more, even if the story is plot-driven. It’s easier to know and like a character, because we’re easily (and willingly) fooled into thinking they’re people. Plot is harder, and most fans don’t have a good grasp of it–it commonly boils down to simple value judgments like “it’s good” or “it’s terrible” or “it has so many plot holes” (without ever expanding the statement).

      It’s sad when I watch a plot-driven show and have no one to talk about it. It’s not that no one’s watching it; they do, and go about their lives. Whereas you have a light novel adaptation that lacks merit outside its narrow otaku niche and you get pages and pages worth of people arguing which is “the better waifu”.

  2. Artemis says:

    I guess it would be easy to say that I like character-driven shows over plot-driven shows, given that I’ve been really into my slice-of-life anime titles over the last couple of years – things like Usagi Drop, AnoHana, Bakuman, Sakamichi no Apollon, etc. That said, there are probably more shows in my top favourites anime list that are either more plot-driven, or at least toe the line between these two types of storytelling – e.g. Wolf’s Rain, FMA: Brotherhood, Durarara!!, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, Eden of the East, X/1999.

  3. Let me float a theory: perhaps there are more than two possible driving forces for a story. Do you think a story can be driven by its mood or atmosphere (Mushishi, Angel’s Egg)? Is there such a thing as an idea-driven story (Patlabor 2, Kaiba)? While I am confident the notion former is can be intuitively grasped (we talk about “mood pieces” all the time), I feel the need to expound a bit on the latter. Just like a plot-driven story, an idea-driven story doesn’t resign the characters to uselessness. Rather, they are instruments, not in service of events, but in service of exploring some theme or idea. I’m not sure if I buy these story-types, and even if they exist they may not be the best way to write fiction. Just curious what you think.

    I don’t necessarily like one more than the other outright. I respect both character and plot driven stories and find myself in the mood for one at certain times and the other at others. I do think that there are certain shows that do both excellent plotting and in-depth characterization so well that it is difficult to tell which is doing the heavy lifting. I’m thinking of LOGH specifically here.

    • omo says:

      Gonna one up you and make the distinction between story, which is what a piece of work is really trying to express, plot, and character.

      This post is about plot that are about what happens, and plot that are about who is what and how the people may change or react to something. It’s a much more narrow scope than what you are proposing; functionally plot simply drives a story. It often times isn’t the story, but it often times is!

      • schneider says:

        Maybe I should have written “action-driven” instead of “plot-driven” instead, orz

        • omo says:

          Sometimes I just think people don’t know what plot is, or somehow there’s something that makes them think plot is all there is to a story. To me that’s as criminal as saying sushi is all there is to Japanese food, but to some that is actually the case and they get by life just fine with that.

    • schneider says:

      I’ve watched Mushishi. Thinking about it, I’m reluctant to call it either character or plot-driven, as neither really drive the story. It does feel that the setting is the one in charge–here’s this world where people suffer because of mushi, and Ginko is trying to alleviate their suffering without exterminating the mushi.

      Science fiction likes the idea-driven story a lot. I haven’t read much, but the drier authors like Asimov and Clarke have written a bit of “if X was real, what’s it like?” I think they’re neat, but I feel that they’d be tough to pull off, because if the reader gets bored with either the plot or characters, he wouldn’t be motivated to read more. I guess in the end it boils down to those two. (Same goes with setting-based.)

      It’s tough, but I’d say LOGH is character-driven. The presentation is very much a history book (which would be more concerned with events), but it’s the characters that make us want to watch more. Sure there’s a war, but the burning question in my head was always “what would Reinhard/Yang do?”

    • schillingklaus says:

      Of course there are also idea-driven stories, and those are my absolute favourites, while I deprecate character-driven stories, at least stories centred abround “believable” characters. I only like stereotypical characters without development, and I get angry whenever I sense the latter, especially in the form of attracting opposites, the one thing that gets me into flaming authors and fellow readers in a rigorous manner. Maybe it’s possible to write character-driven without those — in my view — corruptions, but I’ve not seen any of them.

      Then there are also style (or language?) driven stories, such as the novels of James A. Joyce. Those are apparently even harder to read. Often enough, http://www.iwl.me detects my stories as written like Joyce’s.

  4. omo says:

    People should read more about narrative techniques, the components thereof, plot, character, etc. I agree about what you’ve said so far but it’s kind of just a part of the overall picture. But I thought we learn all this in high school. Well, I did anyway.

    The point about anime fans identifying with character is pretty spot on. It’s hard to have a plot for waifu.

    Also was expecting you to talk about the tournament (and sports anime/manga FWIW), which is the number one plot archetype in anime and manga. GO TO KOUSHIEN BABY.

    By the otaku database concept, fans break down plot the same way they do with characters, if you think about it. It’s just that it is awkward to have a plot framework as a waifu rather than an anime character.

    What I also like about Gundam as a franchise is that they do this damn exact thing with each iterative AU/UC show. It’s a very clear illustration that both plot and characters only serve theme.

    • schneider says:

      I used to belong to the “God this is boring, you don’t need to know all this is if a book or a movie is shit” crowd, like most people. Having become a blogger and a writer, I kind of regret it.

      I plotted out the topics I would write about for the series, but I think I could make room for the tournament plot as a topic.

  5. Pingback: 12 Days of Meditations #8: On character death | Continuing World

  6. GuruofTime says:

    Personally I prefer a mixture of plot and character driven plot to be most satisfying. I find little to no excitment if characters go along the plot with little to no drive or development and I find it irritating and boring to read about a character driven story with random plots falling into their laps constantly.

    I take manga, anime and video games very seriously and the moment I start to lose interest I imideately drop it however once it has grabbed my attention I will never forget it. One good aspect of this is that I have great patience and I give each series an equal chance to impress me.

    Two manga series that I have read years ago and still reread still brings me to tears and moves me deeply.. Rave Master and Zatch Bell. Both manga’s have original story plots, characters that you watch grow up through experience and maturity, the story plot sticks with you and the characters throughout the series and you never forget it, and finally the rereading value is immeasurable. Once you start rereading the series you will imediately see just how much planning and detail was carefully tended to that it will hit you in the stomach like a canon ball. Those kinds of manga stories are what inspire me and make my adrenaline run.

    However there is one video game that continues to fascinate me even after fourteen years that is completely plot driven.. Chrono Trigger. It has everything a creative and an observant mind craves. Time travel, the world is in peril by an unknown villain, characters who’s stories all tie into the plot seamlessly that are introduced together over time (pun slightly intended), the ultimate reveal of villain, optional side quests that delve more into the characters and their stories and finally… for only the most obervant and insightful minds the most incredible subliminal core of the whole game that will blow your mind away.

    I apologize for getting off track there but hopefully I got my point across..

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